Asana, Awakening and Spiritual Practice

Lesson 1: What is an Embodied Spiritual Practice?

This home study course is based on a somatic approach to spiritual practice based on yoga poses, breathing practices and meditation. Somatic refers to the body and this course involves embodying spiritual principles by using ou rpractices to heal and awaken cells, tissues, fluids and psyche. As we will discover in our explorations, the body is never separate from mind, spirit or wholeness, but an ongoing, evolving, tangible manifestation of divinity. The heart knows this intimately, but the mind often forgets and becomes lost in its own deluded projections.

This brings us to the word ‘spiritual’. Spirituality is the study of the heart and spiritual practice is exploring and expressing the lessons of the heart in our daily lives. The spiritual teachings coming from India, including Buddhism, Vedanta and Yoga, are beautifully clear about the wisdom of the heart. We can summarize them in three fundamental statements.

1. ‘Reality’; or the Universe,  seen and unseen, creator and creation, at every level, is an unbroken interconnected whole. Everything (and no-thing) is inextricably connected to everything else.

2. The fundamental essence or nature, of any individual, you, me, or anyone, is this unbroken wholeness. In other words, the definition of “I am”, for everyone, is the wholeness of Reality.

3. This ‘Reality’ offers two perspectives to us.  First is the seen; a world of impermanence, of constantly changing forms, appearing and disappearing in time. Included here are mind, body, culture, science, and more. At best we get glimpses into tiny corners of this infinite display of creation. Most of this is unseen, but waiting to be revealed. The second is not the unseen, but the Seer. Unchanging, limitless, timeless, and unmanifest wholeness, are a few of the many words that point to, not something else to be seen, but the nature of “Seeing” itself. Pure Awareness, Presence, Being are more pointer words. Awakening refers to the sudden insight that ‘Being’ is ever-present, at all times, in all places. You imagescannot acquire it, nor can it be taken away.  Spiritual realization is recognizing that both of these perspectives, Seer and seen, unmanifest and manifest,  are valid, and the two are in fact not separate but expressions of the same “Reality. Thus the term ‘advaita’ meaning ‘not two’. Samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara. Spiritual integration is allowing the mind to see, study and create in the world of change, through the eyes of the heart, as divinity manifesting moment to moment.

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti describes these teaching and the state of the modern human in ‘The Way of adyaLiberation”: “The Reality that these teachings are pointing to is not hidden, or secret, or far away. You cannot earn it, deserve it, or figure it out. At this very moment, Reality and completeness are in plain sight. In fact, the only thing there is to see, hear, smell, taste, touch or feel, is Reality, or God, if you like. Absolute completeness surrounds you wherever you go. So there is really no reason to bother about it, except for the fact that we humans have long ago deceived ourselves into such a confined tangle of confusion and disarray that we can scarcely even consider, much less experience for ourselves, the divinity within and all around us.”

As Adyashanti describes, the ‘Truth of Reality’, especially concerning ‘ourselves’, is a bit hard to swallow for most, because we only see from one perspective, that of mind separate from the heart. We see the constant change all around us, and desperately look for stability. We see death, loss and degeneration and hold on for dear life at any graspable straw we might see. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offers some possible ways to help see through the ‘delusions’ we have created, and open to the possibility of ‘waking up’ to this spiritual “Reality”. This effort to see through our own confusion and awaken the voice of the heart is spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is not about ‘improving ourselves’, because, as we are already whole and unbroken, there is no-thing to improve. It means learning how to live in the world with love and compassion, as we experience the inevitable loss and change the manifest world is subject to.

halasana 1982So how do we practice? According to the dictionary, to practice is: (to) perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency. Athletes and musicians are well known for their practice to refine their specific skills. In hatha yoga, one practices postures, movement and breathing exercises for a multitude of reasons. The health benefits, physical, physiological and psychological, are often the first to be recognized and sought after. As it takes time to change habits and retrain the body/mind to let go of less than helpful patterns and establish healthy ones, continuous practice is necessary to bring about change. This is taking place in the world of form.

We all have a very tangible, physical organ called the heart, sitting on top of the diaphragm and just behind the sternum. As we dive into the moment to moment flow of fluid sensation that is our images-6fundamental aliveness, in every and any asana, we find the heart continuously renewing itself at the center of the flow. When, in any asana, we open our awareness to the subtle energies of the seven chakras, we find the heart at the center of the flow. We when begin the process of re-embodying our embryological origins, we find the heart right in the center. Amazing! Emaho!

Simultaneously, the ever-present open and compassionate heart is waiting to be noticed, independent of the forms. Fear, insecurity and anxiety, products of the mind, obscure our perception of the heart. We are seeking practices that reduce fear and anxiety and build serenity and inner calmness; practices that allow a spaciousness and lightness to be felt surrounding and interpenetrating the heart. Then, the radiant heart is seen effortlessly. As fear and anxiety, serenity and calm are embodied states, somatic practices are a great way to bring about inner peace and an awakening heart. With the help of B.K.S. Iyengar, Patanjali and many others, we will explore how our practices can be used to awaken the heart and create profound personal, and hopefully cultural, transformation. The ABC’s of spiritual awakening include:

A.  Being able to differentiate and discriminate between:
1. The unbounded, unchanging all pervasive Absolute (Purusha and Drashtuh, the Seer in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ‘Now’ in Eckhart Tolle, Atman/Brahman in Vedanta, ‘Being’ with Adyashanti, Buddha Nature/ Bodhi-Citta in Buddhism, etc.): and
2. The transient, constantly changing world of forms (Prakriti, creation, time and space, etc.).

B. Realizing, recognizing, remembering that the true nature of ‘you’ (the ‘I am’ we all experience) is the infinite unbounded, unlimited Purusha and not anything created in the realm of thought and posing as you.

C. Realizing that creation, the world of form, is an ongoing expression of the Divine.  Prakriti is never separate from the infinite, just as the ring is never separate from the gold, even though ‘ringiness’ is different from gold. In other words, differentiated does not mean separate in this case. Samsara is nirvana; nirvana is samsara. We are all “Unique” in the world of form, and “Universal” as our True Self.

When the Hsin Hsin Ming starts to resonate with you, you will know you are on the right track! See also Bhagavad Gita, which we will study later in the course. In the next chapter we will look at the first actual practice, mindfulness, and see why it is the starting point of our journey.

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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8

 

Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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